Burning Hearts for the “Burners:” Families of Missing Migrants as Agents of a Popular Mythos

Authors: Bader AlBader*, University of Michigan, Odessa Gonzalez Benson, University of Michigan, Vadim Besprozvany, University of Michigan, Antonio Siciliano, Elizabeth Upjohn Community Healing Center, Elena Godin, University of Michigan
Topics: Migration, Middle East, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Irregular Maritime Migration, Ambiguous Loss, Folk Narratives, Filiality and Familiality, Thalassocentric Activism
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 35
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the last decade, more than half a million people crossed the sea from North Africa to Southern Europe in search of a livelihood. Thousands have been recorded dead or missing. Behind each missing person are those who remain in search, demanding answers and seeking closure. Our larger project explores how Tunisian families toggle between loss and hope, between forbearance and action. Drawing on interviews with seven families, this paper highlights the tripartite lacuna within which they find themselves: the slipping of their sons into the black box of intercontinental "illegal immigration" betrays an inability to speak of that which is unknown and thus explicates the illusiveness of closure. We attend to the narratives these families speak in response to finding themselves in search of loved ones effectively, if not actually, lost at sea. By listening to what they have to say, we decenter the locus of Mediterranean-borne stories from statist and Eurocentric anxieties to what resides on the tongues of the subaltern. To triangulate between space, articulation, and justice in these families' experiences is to demarcate an empty void around which the constellation of grassroots actors hover, a psychological Bermuda Triangle, the mysteries of which produce more anguishing questions than consoling solutions. To co-opt Claude Lefort's terminology, at the heart of these experiences is an "empty place of power[lessness]." Nonetheless the families live the day-to-day, their hearts yearning for a reunion here and now, their eyes fixed on the Northern (event) horizon.
Postscript: May their eyes find coolness.

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